It is impossible to discuss The Grandmaster without talking about style because it materializes within the movie in so many different forms.
There is the style in which Chinese filmmaker Wong Kar-wai makes his movies like In the Mood for Love and 2046, which is to include highly stylized scenes full of vivid imagery and combine them with stories of deep romance which happens even in his first shot martial arts showcase.
There are the many styles of martial arts, with xingyi, bagua, tai chi and hung gar only a sampling of the forms on display in the movie and explained for their advantages of discipline, deception and brutality, which proves to be a real treat for a novice like myself.
Then there is the style of story the filmmaker wants to tell: martial arts, doomed lovers, family drama, revenge saga, wartime hardships, passing down your skills and secrets. They all make an appearance in a powerful movie that is often so gorgeous to watch that you forgive its strain in telling five different stories.
While Kar-wai tells the story of Ip Man (played by the directors frequent leading man, Tony Leung), who in later years becomes a key mentor to the legendary Bruce Lee, this film is not that subject, as that fact receives only a brief mention in the final five minutes.
The Grandmaster instead delivers the legend of Man himself, as a master of the art of wing chun who becomes known as Chinas martial arts champion of the south half of the country in the 1930s, and whose presence becomes known to the countrys grandmaster who is based in the north and has sought to unite multiple martial arts factions.
When Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang) prepares to retire and name a new grandmaster in his place, and he comes closer to naming Ip Man to this role, there is understandably honor at stake from those in the north, the south and his own household.
The always-excellent Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Memoirs of a Geisha) plays Gong Er, the daughter of the grandmaster, and brings a single-minded purity of soul and spirited revenge to her role as perhaps the most deserving candidate to replace her father -- but whose gender alone in 1930s Chinese society wont allow her skills to be put on display.
This leads to a showdown between her and Ip Man, in a glorious re-creation of a Chinese old-school formality of challenges (the visitor is thrown a banquet and leaves with many gifts, with a no-holds-barred martial arts match in between these two social graces).
The fighting is just as visually sumptuous and dazzling in choreography, whether it be in the rain for a fantastic use of light and shadows, or in an ornate brothel or in a simple office, with oodles of chairs, tables, mirrors and windows shattered to great effect.
The connection, from respect to affection, that forms between the characters played by Leung and Zhang (co-stars from Kar-wais 2046) is intoxicating. The symbolism of his character leaving a jacket button for Gong Er, as a reminder of a shared life that was not to be, is devastating to watch.
So much so that the air comes out of the film in the second act when these characters, and their intriguing relationship, are forced apart.
The story progresses to the 1938 Japanese invasion of China and the many hardships and separations suffered, Kar-Wai goes into a mode of storytelling that almost seems to have him saying, This part is really boring, but I have to include some of the wartime stuff, so here it is....
While the director rebounds in the third act for powerful reunions that range from elated to sad to dangerous (like the grandmasters former protege who was shunned and has never forgotten the shame), there is definitely a lull in the middle of this film that features a great deal of intense action for this filmmaker.
The Grandmaster can often feel like a wonderful night of theater, combining the power of operatic storytelling with the grace of ballet.